Philosophy and Literature 26.2 (2002) 296-311
AS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT and intriguing poets of the romantic period, Byron has been the subject of much recent critical commentary. However, no matter how excellent some of this scholarship is, the reader who is familiar with evolutionary psychology, the science that has tried to explain the biological underpinnings of human nature, inevitably comes away from it with a feeling of dissatisfaction. In spite of the obvious relevance of biological theories of human behavior to the most basic issues of literary interpretation, only a handful of literary critics, and no Byron critics, have attempted to use these theories to understand the creation and reception of literary texts. All literary criticism relies on assumptions about human nature; because most critics are unfamiliar with evolutionary psychology, these assumptions are almost never clarified and justified. By familiarizing themselves with evolutionary psychology, literary critics can replace their vague, commonsensical, and often empirically unsupported assumptions about human nature with more precise and empirically valid theories.
Much recent research on the evolution of sexuality has focused on "cad" and "dad" mating strategies in men. Cads seek to maximize their reproductive success by maximizing the number of their sexual partners and by avoiding parental investment; dads are committed to long-term, monogamous relationships with women and make substantial parental investment in their children. The personality traits of cads—aggressiveness, rebelliousness, criminality, and sexual promiscuity—bear a close resemblance both to Byron's own personality traits and to those of the Byronic hero. Understanding the cad mating strategy enables us to better understand Byron's personality as well as the conflicts between his personality and the culture of his time that shaped his literary production and reception.
Evolutionary psychology uses the principles of evolutionary biology as a guide to the study of human cognition and behavior. The types of psychological traits that will succeed evolutionarily are those that maximize an organism's ability to transmit its genes to the next generation, or what evolutionary psychologists call its "fitness," by successfully reproducing and by helping kin who share its genes to reproduce. Our psychological design did not evolve in the environment that we now inhabit but on the African savannah of the Pleistocene era; therefore, evolved human psychology is best understood not in relation to the lifestyle of the citizens of modern nation-states, but to that of hunter-gatherers.
Recent research on human sexuality has suggested that humans have evolved to pursue two different types of mating strategies: short-term and long-term. On the one hand, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that, unlike most mammals, humans are designed for long-term sexual relationships with substantial male parental investment in children. Human infants require a great deal of parental care, and children reared in father-absent households suffer much higher mortality rates than those who are reared in father-present households, especially in preindustrial societies. The sexual psychology of women also indicates that human sexuality has been shaped by long-term sexual relationships. A number of studies both in the United States and across cultures have shown that women regularly report being attracted to men who are socially respected, financially well-off, ambitious, industrious, dependable, emotionally stable, and romantic, all qualities that indicate the ability and willingness to sustain long-term, parentally investing relationships with women.
However, there are also aspects of both men's and women's sexuality that show that we did not evolve exclusively to pursue long-term mating. The evidence for the importance of short-term mating in human evolution is most obvious in men, who consistently show a marked desire for sexual variety. For example, in a survey, male college students said that they would, on average, like to have six partners in the coming year, and men fantasize about having sex with multiple partners (Buss, ED, pp. 76-83). The fitness advantage of short-term sexual relationships to men is obvious: men can have more offspring the more females they have sex with. This is the reason why short-term mating without parental investment is the strategy that most male mammals pursue. The disadvantage is...